When the confidence and skill of public speaking were distributed among humankind, I think I was fast asleep. Just the thought of standing in front of an audience makes my hands shaky and sweaty. But through the years of my experience in school and work, I have devised some ways to deal with my stage fright and nerves, and these are what I’m going to share with you in this blog post. But just a DISCLAIMER: I’m not an expert. I’ll just share what I have experienced, and this may or may not be applicable to you. Also, if you have something to share, please feel free to comment down below.
Before I jump into the tips and advice, I just want to establish why the ability to communicate in public is important. I think it’s safe to assume that most of us here are dreaming of becoming a leader, whether a leader of a big company, our own start-up, or even a political or social organization. As leaders, our success or failure depends on how we get across our message to our stakeholders. We may be the best and the most intelligent in our field, but if we cannot articulate our vision, it will not be realized by the organization. With this, I hope I was able to emphasize how crucial public speaking is to our careers as leaders.
On that note, let’s now start the discussion which is divided into three segments: What to do (1) before the big day of presentation, (2) on the day, and (3) after the presentation.
BEFORE THE BIG DAY
- This is just like taking exams. We may feel nervous or frightened before an exam, but if we studied well and hard, chances are we’ll pass. The same with public speaking, we may become shaky and all, but because we prepared so much for it, chances are we’ll be able to tell something about our topic. Also, if we know our topic really well, somehow, we’ll feel more confident because we know that what we are going to say is backed-up by data and research. And if there is a question that we have no answer for, don’t forget that we can always say “I’ll get back to you”. But of course, we don’t want to overuse that either.
- Related to point 1 is to start early. I know it’s hard, because we are great procrastinators, but if we are really nervous on what we are about to do, better to start our preparation early, right? To make it more fun, we can divide the whole tasks into smaller pieces and for every piece that we accomplish, we treat ourselves.
- Never underestimate the power of practice. The more we do something, the more that it becomes a habit. And the purpose of practicing is NOT for us to memorize the words, but for us to be more comfortable with ourselves and with what we are saying and for us to get the flow of our presentation. It depends on the person if he/she wants to record him/herself, but the public speakers in Toastmasters record themselves because it helps in adjusting what needs to be adjusted. Imagine if we don’t know that we are awkward and all, and we just knew it on the day of the event by the reaction of the audience. It’s a shame, right? Another benefit of practicing is when our speech is time-constrained. I remember when we competed in Vietnam for Hult competition, we were only given 6 minutes to discuss our business idea, and with so many parts we could dwell on, through practice, we were able to determine which points to give emphasis and which we could just breeze through.
- Usually, what makes us nervous is that there are so many questions in our heads. What if I forget what I am going to say? What if I make a fool out of myself? What if the audience doesn’t like me? These are the very questions that scare us and that we need to address. Actually, when we do the prepare and practice, we should be okay, but just for us to be more relaxed, we need to have a fallback. Anticipate what could go wrong. Like for example, we can have cue cards so that when we get lost along the way, we can always refer to our cue card. Or use a Powerpoint presentation, so that the figures will be there, and we don’t have to memorize the numbers or the statistics. What matters is that we’re prepared for the scenarios that we are afraid of.
- Exercise. This is to relax our muscles which usually become tensed whenever we become nervous. Also, exercise helps our body release a chemical known as endorphin which gives us a feeling lightness and euphoria.
- Wear comfortable yet appropriate clothes. One tip that I got before I took the college entrance exams back in high school is to never wear new clothes because our mind will be more focused on whether they look good on us or not, and I think that’s also applicable to public speaking. So, instead of making ourselves conscious, let’s do ourselves a favour by wearing something that we can be confident with.
- Get a good night sleep. I know that this may be hardest especially when we have so much work and studying to do, but nothing beats a clear mind when it comes to making a presentation, and we need that. So, take some rest and make sure to have a good night sleep.
ON THE BIG DAY
- First, be early on the event. This is to avoid additional stress as much as possible. Imagine that we are already nervous because of our talk and yet, we are also stressed because we might be late for the presentation. It’s better that we are early, so that we can feel the ambiance of the room, and we can get to talk with some of the participants which leads to my next point.
- Interact with the participants. This is to develop rapport with the audience. In this way, we’ll be less nervous since we know them already. The hardest part of the presentation is the beginning since the general trend of nerves is that it fades as we become more comfortable on stage. So, it is advisable to go to the venue earlier and mingle with some of the participants, so that we can get a general feel of who they are. This familiarity will somehow lessen the “fear of the unknown” and will help us adjust according to their mood.
- Bring a jacket. This is important especially if we are always bothered by the cold (like me!). Most of the time, we are going to present in airconditioned rooms, so might as well bring a jacket or blazer so that the cold will not add up to our nerves.
- Do some stretching. This is important to relax our tensed muscles and for the body to release endorphins. I remember when I sang in a wedding reception (I’m not a great singer, but I just want to experience it, so I ask my friend who was a soon-to-be bride if I could sing in her wedding, and she said yes!). I knew back then that singing in front of an audience is really nerve-racking, but when I was already in the backstage, it was an entirely new level of nerves. I went to a vacant room, did some stretching, and shouted my lungs out (good thing, no one was there!). I was still nervous, but it did help to release some of the tension.
- And now, going to the execution part. One of the most important concern during a presentation is eye contact. Most of us are afraid to look straight at people when we present because it makes us feel conscious and awkward. However, it will be more awkward, if we’ll be looking at the floor or at the walls. This is why interaction with the audience before the talk is important (I got this tip from Prof. Maya Herrera!). In this way, we’ll have friendly faces to look at during our presentation (just make sure that the people we talked to are scattered in the audience. Haha). If we’re still not comfortable, we may look at the spaces in between people; however, I find it offensive when I am dealing with a class or a small group because it is so obvious that I am not looking at them. So, we still need to practice eye contact as much as possible.
- Remember that it’s not about us. It’s about what the audience came for. They came in our presentation to learn, and that’s what we have to give to them. Tip from Prof. Maya is to tell ourselves that “It’s showtime!” to condition our brain that we need to wear a different hat this time.
AFTER THE BIG DAY
- We should ask people for feedback especially those who are close to us so that we’ll get an honest opinion. If we didn’t do well, don’t give up immediately. Now that we know the feeling of frustration and shame, we’ll be more eager to prove ourselves, and at least people will have less expectation from us the next time (and that’s an opportunity to surprise them!).
- Seize opportunities to speak more. This is for us to get more practice and become more comfortable talking to other people. Also, one way is to recite more often in class or meetings. This is another venue to practice saying our thoughts out loud.
- Watch people who are good in public speaking and observe what qualities we want to imitate. Better if we can ask them and be mentored by them.
So, that’s it! I hope you learned a lot from this article. Before you leave, I want to show you a quotation which, I think, you are very much familiar with.
“Courage is NOT the absence of fear, but the action in spite of it.”
With this, thank you so much for reading this article! And God bless on your journey to winning with nerves!
Written by Kevin Vosotros, a student of Masters in Business Administration in Asian Institute of Management. He is a Filipino.